The Spearheaders: A Personal History of Darby’s Rangers by James J. Altieri with a new introduction by Mir Bahmanyar and Colonel (retired) Mike Kershaw
The book description of the 1960 edition:
The outlook for a victory of the Allied Powers was dim in the spring of 1942. Britain was being unmercifully bombed and threatened with invasion. Rommel’s forces were rampaging across North Africa toward Alexandria. Only two American divisions had arrived in the European theatre. Stationed in Ireland, they were green, untested troops, their combat deployment a matter of speculation even to the high command.
It was then that General Lucien K. Truscott conceived the plan of organizing an American commando unit to be known as the “Rangers,” a name made famous in American history. “On every frontier the name has been one of hope for those who required protection; of fear, for those who have lived outside the law.”
Major William O. Darby was placed in command of the first Ranger Battalion. Darby proved himself an officer of such extraordinary powers of leadership that his unit was forever after known as “Darby’s Rangers.” This was the organization destined to be the first American ground forces to battle the Germans in Africa and Europe in World War II.
The Spearheaders is an account from an enlisted man’s point of view of the intensely dramatic career of the Rangers from their beginnings as soldiers in Ireland, through their grueling training in Scotland, to their role in the bloody fighting in North Africa, Sicily and Italy.
This is a story of war as intimate and individual as the diaries, letters and memories on which it is based. Here are the courage, determination, hope and occasional moments of weakness of gallant American boys from the “next doors” of Maine and California, Oregon and Florida. Here, too, are unforgettable pictures of the grandeur and misery of war, bawdiness and bloodshed, its triumphs ultimate futilities.
Dominating the aggregation of his startlingly individualized subordinates is the commanding figure of Major Darby himself. Like Caesar he could call each of his men by name, congratulate them: “A helluva shoot . . . every company came through … a beautiful job… now we got to get our tails out of here”; inspire them: “The outfit that can slip up the enemy and stun him with shock and surprise – that is the outfit that will win battles, and that is the outfit I want”; console them: “I’m sorry . . . damned sorry . . . I knew you would put on a good show.”
The Spearheaders is no ordinary war history. In line with present Army doctrine, it demostrates the value of tough, resourceful, hard-trained troops, capable of swift dispersal and penetration instead of massed movement susceptible to atomic blasts. Its vivid writing, its empathy with those who served, its appreciation of the Ranger spirit more than the Ranger achievements, make it rekindle in the he and minds of all Americans the great heritage, proud history and high ideals of their nation.
I have had the unique experience of meeting Jim Altieri on several occasions. He was always willing to help anyone interested in the history of Darby’s Rangers, America’s first commando unit of the Second World War.
After Jim passed, his long time friend Frank Lenaghan contacted me, and I picked up what few personal effects Jim had left behind. I found what looks like the original or perhaps the carbon copy of the original manuscript of The Spearheaders, and thought Jim would have liked to see it back in print. Jim’s, at the time, surviving relation Robert Altieri agreed.
Jim dedicated his civilian life to the preservation of the history of the fabled unit and in The Spearheaders he details and preserves for eternity the colorful characters, hard training and the attrition of sustained combat operations the men of the unit endured under their much beloved commander William O. Darby who was killed in action in Italy in 1945.
James J. Altieri was born in Philadelphia, PA on March 4, 1920 and passed away on April 18, 2008 in Newport Beach, CA. A former steelworker at Lukens Steel Company near Philadelphia, he enlisted on October 8, 1941 and joined the 68th Field Artillery of the First Armored Division. While serving with the 1st AD in Northern Ireland, he volunteered for the 1st Ranger Battalion, which had been officially activated on June 19, 1942.
Altieri was promoted from First Sergeant to Second Lieutenant with the 4th Ranger Battalion on November 21, 1943 and to First Lieutenant on February 25, 1944. He participated in six campaigns, 17 battles and four assault landings through North Africa, Sicily and Italy and was wounded twice during the Volturno-Venafro Campaign. First, Altieri suffered a machine gun wound to his right leg in October and, the second time, on November 13, 1943, he received shrapnel wounds to his head.The 4th Ranger Battalion was deactivated in October 1944 at Camp Buckner, North Carolina. He was the recipient of the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Combat Infantryman’s Badge. Jim Altieri also served as a Public Relations Officer for the Tennessee Military Authority. He was honorably discharged in 1946 as a Captain.
After the Second World War Jim ran an unsuccessful campaign as the independent Democratic candidate for Mayor in Philadelphia.Jim stayed in touch with many Darby veterans and he even managed to seal the records of the criminal trial in Los Angeles County of Ranger Captain Charles M. “Chuck” Shunstrom who had brazenly robbed a gas station at gunpoint in 1946.
Recalled to active duty in 1951 Jim served with the Army’s Office of Information coordinating the production of Hollywood movies. In this position he supervised the feature long color documentary, This is Your Army. He was promoted to Major. After his service Jim continued his career as an author, having written Darby’s Rangers (1945) which inspired the 1958 Warner Brothers film Darby’s Rangers starring the iconic actor James Garner, with his subsequent memoir The Spearheaders (1960) and several screenplays. He served as military technical advisor on films such as Force of Arm (1951) and Darby’s Rangers (1958).
Altieri continued his service to the Ranger community as a civilian, becoming President and Chairman of the WWII Rangers Remembrance Society. He also was President and Secretary of the Ranger Battalions Association of WWII, Western Chapter, and founded the Sons and Daughters of World War II Rangers. He spearheaded the creation of the WW2 Ranger Monument at Fort Benning, Georgia. James J. Altieri was inducted into the U.S. Army’s Ranger Hall of Fame in 2009. To this day he and all of Darby’s Rangers remain legends to Rangers, past, present and future.
It is my sincere hope that the reader will treasure this marvelous memoir.
Rangers Lead The Way!